Yeah, yeah, the Tour de France has been plagued with doping for the zillionth straight year, but I'm still very excited about the rest of the race, which ends next Sunday with the traditional stage to Paris. First, though, the race itself has to be decided. The final standings could be determined as late as next Saturday, with an individual time trial, but that race will probably instead be more-or-less settled over the next three stages, all brutal mountain stages in the high Alps.
Between them, stages 15 on Sunday, 16 on Tuesday (following a rest day), and 17 on Wednesday include six hors-categorie climbs, the slopes that are so long and steep as to be "beyond category." These six climbs will eliminate some of the five racers who are now separated by less than a minute at the top of the general classification, and the battles should be brutal. The current yellow jersey, Australian Cadel Evans, is leading a painfully weak Silence-Lotto team that provided almost no support in the Pyrenees. A strong climber, Evans will thus be subjected to attack after attack by other contenders, including especially the mountain goat Frank Schleck, whose CSC team is the strongest in the race and who is only 1 second back of Evans. Lurking in third, 39s behind Evans, is American Christian Vande Velde, who leads a new team, Garmin-Chipotle (GPS and burritos!) that might - especially with the Tour win on the line - be capable of some good attacking as well.
In short, the next three stages will see a classic sporting contest between the immovable object, Evans, and the irresistible force of CSC - with Garmin-Chipotle and a couple other teams injecting some chaos as well. I can't wait to see how Sunday's stage plays out. It's a 185km run that starts in Embrun, in southeastern France, then climbs almost immediately over the 9,000-foot Col Agnel pass (the first in the series of HC climbs) on the Italian border. If CSC attacks Evans on the Agnel, they could put him into enough difficulty - either by destroying his team or by stressing him personally - that he won't be able to adequately respond on the second, much later climb of the day, which comes after a long run across the Piedmont in northwestern Italy.
By the time the racers reach that second climb, the ascent to the Italian ski resort of Prato Nevoso, the leaders should be back together, but Evans might be isolated and thus unable to keep up with Schleck - or with Vande Velde or another opportunist. Then again, perhaps the long respite between the Agnel and Prato Nevoso will allow Evans' team to regroup and help him fend off the later attacks - or even to counteratttack and extend his lead. And maybe Evans will himself be strong enough to handle CSC. It should be great sport, no matter what happens.